NEW YORK – It is three hours before the Gotham Girls Roller Derby bout is scheduled to begin, but already league members are hard at work preparing the gym at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Hundreds of squares of plastic Sport Court will be snapped together to create the blue track before the Manhattan Mayhem and Brooklyn Bombshells can roll out before a sellout crowd of 600. But after fifteen years and dozens of bouts, these league members have construction down pat. Derby may be in its infancy as a sport, but as it moves into its second decade the full-contact appeal is still strong.
The co-captain of the Brooklyn Bombshells, who skates under the name Bellatrix, is just 20 years old and learned to skate as part of Gotham’s program for juniors. Unlike most of her teammates, Isabella Melita is a derby native. For her, roller derby was on the menu as much as basketball, soccer or any other sport you might find in gym class.
“I was 15 when I started. There was a lot of teenage anger,” Melita said cheerfully. “The fine print is you get to release your anger. I have never really stuck with other sports. Plus the environment is very inclusive.”
Melita’s Bombshells lost the first home team bout of the season 175-132 to the Mayhem, who were led by veteran jammer Grace Giles, in front of a packed house. Rowdy fans filled the bleachers and peered over the railing of an overhead track. For their trouble, they got to see Manhattan win the first contest of the season after losing every bout last year.
“We got kicked in the ass last year,” said Giles, who has been playing for 13 years. “We’ve been really training, everything is being done with a purpose.”
Giles is about to open a franchise of the Australian gym, F45, in Boerum Hill next month. It is cross-training like that which has put muscle on skaters who used to win by sprints.
The bout was emblematic of how much the sport has changed. From an all-out speed game in the late aughts to the more physically punishing strategic game that it is today. Today, the jammer needs to be able to push multiple blockers, meaning strength is a premium for the former speed position.
A primer for the unfamiliar: The objective of the game is to get a point-scorer, called a jammer, through four opposing blockers in two-minute increments called jams. Each team has four blockers and a jammer skating around the oval track, and points are scored when a jammer passes a blocker after her initial pass through the pack.
Full disclosure, I played the sport for seven years with Suburbia Roller Derby in Yonkers, and played with or against several women on the track on Saturday.
Gotham is one of the most successful leagues in the country. It has won five national titles starting in 2008, and has over 115 active members across four home teams and four travel teams. Skaters often play on one of each. Applying to join the league includes a question about whether a skater has enough vacation days to play in the away bouts. This is a clue.
Derby isn’t so much a sport as a way of life.
Gotham’s All Star team are always in contention for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association championship, but the overall league is so strong that the league’s home-team bouts offer incredibly competitive play and some of the best skaters in the nation.
The league could sell more tickets to individual bouts but, as a mid-sized sport in a city where real estate is at a premium, struggles to find venues that can accommodate the track and the fans.
When league president Danielle Sporkin, aka Spork Chop, signed up to play in the league’s recreational league, she thought that was where things would end. But she was just too competitive. Once on the track and learning skills, she wanted to get to the next level, and the next, and now she skates for the All Stars and runs the whole league.
“There’s always been a real physicality to it,” said the former equestrian jumper, “but as there have been more leagues and WFTDA goes international, some of the kitschiness of the sport has gone by the wayside.”
It’s not like the campy version of the sport that was televised in the 50s and 60s. Many of these skaters grew up playing sports by the rules and expect authenticity.
Manhattan Manager Straight Razor, aka Carly Bogan, tried out for the league in 2007. New York City Archive’s digital programs manager was in the red, carrying a clip board and directing lineups and strategy on the track for her team’s win. She didn’t start out in those leadership roles, but a decade in a supportive and inclusive environment has left its mark.
“Now I’m a manager in my field and my confidence has really grown as a result of this sport,” she said.
The captain of the Mayhem skates under the name Bonita Applebum, a reference to A Tribe Called Quest so old that some of her younger teammates don’t know it. At 43, she’s seen the sport move from a campy aesthetic to a more athletic one, and create a greater sense of inclusiveness especially when it comes to gender expression.